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Nick Hornby: Why a ‘High Fidelity’ Reboot Made Perfect Sense

The author on why Hulu’s gender-flipped series based on his music-superfandom novel speaks to a contemporary audience: “It’s about people who aren’t like you, too”

Miles Donovan for Rolling Stone

You have to play the long game, if you want to survive as a writer. The publication of High Fidelity, in 1995, was just the first step in an ambitious 25-year plan: a successful American edition, even though I set the book in London (check); a much-loved Hollywood movie (check); and then a gender-flipped TV series starring a woman who was six years old when the book was published, but whose talent and star power were obvious even then (check). It is very satisfying when these things pay off.

All rubbish, of course. I didn’t know what I was doing. All of this, including finishing the novel in the first place, seemed highly unlikely right up until the point where everything actually happened. And Zoë Kravitz’s Hulu series (premiering February 14th) is perhaps the most unlikely High Fidelity iteration yet. That it makes so much sense, and speaks so directly to a contemporary audience, is a tribute to the star and her team; it also says something about the ability of pop, rock & roll, etc., to inspire enduring devotion and provide a crucial sense of identification and belonging.

When I wrote the book, I had wondered whether all that was on the way out. The original Rob Fleming — whose record store was just off the Holloway Road in Islington, as opposed to Chicago or Brooklyn — was disaffected from his work. He was beginning to suspect that he had dedicated the first half of his life to a cause that was no longer meaningful or relevant. Virgin and Borders megastores were replacing independents. CDs had already replaced vinyl. Only a few German boffins (and certainly no English novelists) had heard of MP3s. Who could’ve predicted that by 2020 the megastores would all be dead and that the plucky if impoverished Robs of the world would be the last ones standing?

High Fidelity the TV show deals with the world we’re in now. The playlists are made digitally, yet the hearts that are broken by feckless men and women are still inconveniently and painfully analog. Somehow, Rob survived the move into the 21st century, because people are still willing to pay for something that’s as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. After I began to use Spotify, I thought, “This is incredible: every piece of music I’ll ever need, in a small box in my pocket.

Guess what: High Fidelity isn’t just about you. It’s about people who aren’t like you, too.

But I started to feel that I wasn’t paying the music enough attention, or giving it enough respect. I began to purchase records again, many of them by newer artists. With a record, you have to sit still and listen for 20 minutes, rather than skip after the first 10 seconds. Many of us are surrounded by books we’ll never part with because they tell us who we are. The same applies to music. We want to make our mark, peel off, find a little corner of the planet that is uniquely ours. Our tastes reflect back an image of ourselves, invariably an image much more flattering than a selfie. I didn’t know in 1995 that I was writing a book that would serve as a mirror to future generations — that they too would look in it and see themselves.

And I didn’t know that High Fidelity was going to be a TV series until plans were relatively advanced. When I sold the film rights to the book during the Nineties, I sold the TV rights too. That’s the way it works. But in late 2018, a friend of a friend of Zoë’s got in touch to say that she wanted to talk. It’s weird that her father is a rock star. It’s weird that her mother was in the movie. It’s weird that both of them have posed naked for the cover of this magazine. Maybe this was all some kind of gimmick?

But any doubts about her suitability for the gig, and her deep cultural seriousness, were dispelled partly by our conversation, and partly by the first playlist she sent me, featuring tracks by Alice Coltrane, Tierra Whack, William Onyeabor, Shuggie Otis, Betty Davis, Sun Ra, the Clash, Spirit, the MC5, and Darondo. Zoë might be a bona fide movie star, but she’s done a lot of crate-digging. I was pretty sure that she’d do a good job. She has.

Every time I’ve had cause to dip back into the book, I’ve been struck by its melancholy. That’s transferred to the series; Zoë’s Rob has the blues. Her music is a shield against the world, but it can’t provide all the protection she needs — and in any case, her generation has more to worry about than mine ever did.

I don’t think anyone who has read and loved the book, and/or seen and loved the movie could be disappointed with the series. I couldn’t be more proud of the show. And if I catch anyone saying it’s self-consciously “woke,” what with its gender reversals and its inclusion of more than one race/sexuality, I will come ’round to your house and put you back to sleep. Because, guess what: High Fidelity isn’t just about you. It’s about people who aren’t like you, too.